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John Dewey transformed the United States educational system as a philosopher, reformer, and psychologist. He published thousands of writings on art, social theory, logic, and ethics, but is best known for his promotion of pragmatism and democracy. His work in the birth of functional psychology made him one of the most cited and influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Youth and Education

John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont on October 20, 1859, to parents Archibald Sprague Dewey and Lucina Artemisia Rich. His parents named him after his older brother who died less than a year before his birth. Dewey attended the University of Vermont along with his two surviving brothers. He studied the writings of T. H. Huxley and learned evolutionary theory from G. H. Perkins which influenced his focus on the relationship between humans and their environment.

He began teaching after graduating in 1879. When the Journal of Speculative Philosophy’s editor, W. T. Harris, accepted a philosophical essay he submitted, Dewey decided to apply to Johns Hopkins University. In 1884, he received a doctorate after studying under George Sylvester Morris and G. Stanley Hall, who introduced him to Hegelian thought and the application of hard scientific methods in social science.[1]

Early Career

John Dewey published his first books during his 10 years teaching at the University of Michigan, Psychology in 1887 and Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning Human Understanding in 1888. He also met James Hayden Tufts who he collaborated with when writing Ethics, published in 1908. The pair went to the University of Chicago in 1894. [2] There he founded a laboratory school to research educational methods and published his first major writing, The School and Society.[3]

Dewey served as president of the American Psychological Association in 1899 and the American Philosophical Association in 1905. [4][5] In 1904, Dewey resigned and accepted a position at Columbia University, where he spent the remainder of his academic career.[6] He published over 700 journal articles and almost 40 books including, “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology” in 1896, Democracy and Education in 1916, and Human Nature and Conduct in 1922.[7]

Functional Psychology

Dewey understood that the human mind did not cease emotional or social development upon birth, but is ever changing in response to external influence.

The foundations of functional psychology derive from Dewey’s interest combining experimental and social science. Functional psychology emphasizes the influence of external environments on social behavior and the functioning of the mind. He believed in a fluidity between stimulus and reaction and did not agree with the modern psychological thought that they existed as separate, linear events.[8]

Functional psychology examines changes in behavior and mental stimulation by a human actively adapting to their external environment. [9]

John Dewey and Philosophical Theory

John Dewey practiced pragmatism which, he quotes in his 1938 book, is “namely the function of consequences as necessary tests of the validity of propositions, provided these consequences are operationally instituted and are such as to resolve the specific problem evoking the operations…”[10] He used this thought process to address many different philosophical styles including epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, and metaphysics.[11]

The Theory of Knowledge

John Dewey’s obsession with proper terminology stemmed from his belief that imprecise and inefficient words limit the scope of psychology and philosophy.

John Dewey preferred using the terms “experimental logic” or “theory of knowledge” to “epistemology” since he felt his approach to the subject varied enough from the latter’s definition. He believed epistemological thought created too much of a divide between the things people think and the observed things people think about.

After years of studying and writing on this mentality, Dewey came to the fluid conclusion that humans do not passively interact or understand their environment. They are actively guided by individual responses to motor and sensory stimuli that affect constantly adapting behavior and thought processes.[12]


Dewey began writing on metaphysics after his publication of Studies in Logical Theory in 1903.[13] He learned through his pragmatism and other philosophical studies that knowledge is acquired as a biological means to fulfill natural purposes and that true understanding can only be achieved through active participation and empiricism.

John Dewey did not believe in an “ultimate reality.”

Dewey argued that scientific inquiry seeks to find concrete, empirical answers to the why and how of life experience, but that does not mean the currently unexplainable or inconsistent have no scientific foundation. He also argued that although the meanings gained from personal experience may change as we acquire more information, it does not mean an individual’s understanding of their own existence at any given time is incorrect or incomplete. This differed from many of the metaphysical theories of the 20th century and entered the realm of “naive realism.”

Retirement and Death

John Dewey retired from college education in 1930, but continued as a social activist and philosopher. He helped expose the illegal proceedings of Leon Trotsky’s trial in Moscow by heading the Commission of Inquiry in 1937.[14]

In 1940, John Dewey also defended Bertrand Russell’s chair position in the College of the City of New York from being overtaken by opposing conservative members. During his retirement, Dewey published many of his most famous books, including A Common Faith and Art as Experience in 1934, Theory of Valuation in 1939, and Knowing and the Known in 1949. He did not cease writing and studying until his death on June 2, 1952.[15]



Field, R. John Dewey (1859—1952). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Northwest Missouri State University.


  1. Field, n.d.
  2. Field, n.d.
  3. Dewey, J. (2008). The School and Society. New York, NY: Cosimo Classics.
  4. American Psychological Association. (2016). Former APA Presidents. American Psychological Association.
  5. The American Philosophical Association. (2016). APA Divisional Presidents and Addresses.
  6. Field, n.d.
  7. Shook, J. John Dewey. Pragmatism Cybrary.
  8. Dewey, J. (1896). The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology. Psychological Review, 3(4), 357–370. doi:10.1037/h0070405
  9. Vandenbos, G. R. (2006). APA Dictionary of Psychology. United States: American Psychological Association.
  10. Dewey, J. (1938). Logic, The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston.
  11. Field, n.d.
  12. Field, n.d.
  13. Dewey, J. (1903). Studies in Logical Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  14. Walters, D. The Case of Leon Trotsky (Report of Dewey Commission - 1937). (2000, September). Trotsky Internet Archive.
  15. Field, n.d.

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